Friday, Aug. 22, 1996
This clear summer morning, alone in this rented vacation house, near the ocean, in the woods, I play my saxophone. Sensuous, calm pleasure: one of the few times I can be alone without wishing I were writing a poem.
In my late teens and early 20s, I played a lot: professionally, in the sense that I blew into it while a drummer drummed and a piano player played and a bass player lay down a bass line, and people paid my friends and me money. We played at high-school dances, weddings, and bar mitzvahs, at occasions like the Elk’s Club New Year’s Dance, where my mother and father won the prize for dancing the best cha-cha. For a couple of years, we played on weekend afternoons near the pool at the West End Casino in Long Branch, N. J. It was my only success in high school, where I was neither a good student nor a social hit; in the popularity poll, you will find me under “most musical,” posed by the photographer with a trumpet in one hand while holding a stick against a bass drum with the other. My dream in those days was to become a famed jazz musician. Gradually, I realized that I wasn’t very good at it, and the daydreams faded effortlessly into fantasies of being a writer. By my mid-20s, I had lost my horn–a Buescher Aristocrat I had bought with money earned playing gigs, when I was 15–in a manner that is still too painful for me to relate.
A few years ago, after a 25-year layoff, I went out like a man in a trance and bought myself a new tenor: an efficient Italian imitation of a Selmer Mark VI called a Grassi. I found I could still play a little and began taking lessons from Steve Tully, a Boston tenor man. I also discovered the wonderful CDs sold via mail order by Jamey Aebersold: rhythm sections for a large selection of jazz tunes and standards. They come with sheet music, and you can order them with a credit card and an 800 number.
These digital sidemen do not look at one another when I make a mistake or fall a half-bar behind. At the touch of a button, they will take it from the top over and over. They are not embarrassed by anything I play. They don’t even look bored.
This morning, I begin like a good student, running through all keys in the cycle of fifths, playing the major, minor, harmonic minor scales. (At home, pressed for a quick fix, my electronic band and I will often lurch right into some easy tune, or the Aebersold Blues in All Keys CD.) Then, thoroughly warmed up, I play some tunes, shuffling favorite discs into my boom box: “Night and Day,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Skylark,” a swooping, corny, self-indulgent solo on the easy tempo and key of “Georgia on My Mind.” I close with “Blue Seven” from the Sonny Rollins tunes CD, a dark, splendidly reptilian blues full of tritones and flat ninths.
During my little practice session, I can hear the sounds of hammering and talking from the nearest neighbor, an invisible house somewhere off in the woods. No problem–I hear their hammers, putting new cedar shakes, and they hear me blowing my heart out into a fantasy of musical depth. In fact, later in the day, to my tremendous pride, I can hear one of them whistling “Georgia on My Mind”! A compliment from my public! Or so I choose to consider it.
Even aside from this subtle little laurel, the hammers and voices don’t bother me when I have put the horn aside and get down to writing: Unlike heavy machinery, hand tools and conversation make a fitting counterpoint to what I do. That’s part of the appeal for me of William Carlos Williams’ poem about the roofers:
FINE WORK WITH PITCH AND COPPER
Now they are resting
in the fleckless light
separately in unison
like the sacks
of sifted stone stacked
regularly by twos
about the flat roof
ready after lunch
to be opened and strewn
The copper in eight
foot strips has been
down the center at right
angles and lies ready
to edge the coping
One still chewing
picks up a copper strip
and runs his eye along it
I like the way he shows off without condescending: not only challenging a professorial idea of lyricism by taking his language right out of the how-to manual, but in that last phrase, telling us that he has “run his eye along” a scene he might have seen out of his office window, between patients.
The horn is many things for me; I sometimes refer to Steve as my shrink, to which he responds that if so, I ought to pay him more. The saxophone is also my essential model of what culture is: a form of motion, not of purity or “identity.” It is in some literal way a European instrument, invented by a Belgian named “Sax”; my friend Barry Goldensohn this year gave me a Belgian 300 franc note, on which there are pictures of Sax and a saxophone. I had it framed.
But no–it is not a European instrument; it is an American instrument, more specifically, a black American instrument, an African-American instrument. Why? Because it was made so by geniuses, artists named Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker and so forth. They made it their instrument. That is my idea of what one’s ambition ought to be, in relation to the English language, the Internet, the Japanese renga, whatever. They made it their instrument. The happy, eclectic, syncretic quality of jazz is an important element in its spirit–caught, for me, in the title of a tune played by Stan Getz among others, a phrase I like so well I once stole it for the title of a poem: Ginza Samba.
And last night was Provincetown’s annual Carnival. People line up on Commercial Street–kids, oldsters, drag queens, leather people, Kiwanians–applauding the floats and marchers, led by a Provincetown Police patrol car. Here are Jackie O. and Josephine Baker, Santa and the Missus with many outrageous elves and dancing Christmas trees, Barbra Streisand, Moses, Jesus, the Dyketones, and–she is doing a concert in the area–Zydeco’s Queen Ida, herself and not a look-alike, beaming and waving from a convertible. Floats are sponsored by art galleries, bars, sightseeing tours, guest houses, or free-lance groups. An amateur, small-town feeling combines with the Fellini-orgy quality: A Norman Rockwell village meets the Village People. All of it–the cultural icons from Bette Davis to the pope, the sexual proclivities and traditions, the falsies and bunting and streamers and balloons and spike heels and rainbow dildos, salt-water taffy and condom-disk necklaces–is part of the instrument.